The natural inclination is to overreact to all that occurs during the NFL preseason—there are only so many opportunities to see players and teams in semi-competitive live action before Week 1, after all—so a quick word about the approach for our preseason First Down/Fourth Down recaps:
These are meant to spotlight the highs and lows from a weekend's worth of exhibition games, while hopefully providing a little context for what happened. They are not designed to draw any sweeping conclusions based on the rag-tag action preseason football often provides. There are too many variables in these August games, from the expanded rosters to conservative play calling and everything in between.
Certain events make it a touch easier to project out the preseason product—a key injury, for example (of which there have been several). In general, though, NFL analysis lives in a world of hypotheticals: "If player X continues to show progress, this could be the outcome for his team."
Just look at Marcus Mariota, for example. Tennessee's rookie quarterback took some heat for his start last week, a performance that included Mariota throwing a brutal interception on a screen pass followed by a fumble resulting in an Atlanta touchdown.
Many reactions flipped Sunday night, thanks in large part to a play where Mariota escaped a rush in the backfield, rolled right and fired a strike downfield. Overall, he finished 5-of-8 for 59 yards and did look more comfortable than he had in his first appearance.
But there is no point to taking any leap on Mariota beyond baseline observations. We've yet to see him even play into a second quarter, let alone a full game. That ad-libbed completion vs. St. Louis aside, Mariota also has not been given much freedom to create outside the pocket.
His rookie season could go any number of ways, regardless of his game showings to date.
Need further convincing to slow down? How about this: Tom Brady is 3-of-9 passing for 23 yards over New England's first two games, and the offense has produced zero points with him in the game. Does that, plus Jimmy Garoppolo's 28-of-33 effort Saturday, mean that the Patriots will not miss a beat if Brady has to serve some or all of his suspension? Hardly.
So, take First Down/Fourth Down mostly at face value. Some players will carry over their performances into the regular season; others will prove these preseason contests as meaningless as they can seem. Good luck figuring out who falls into each category.
This week's rundown ...
First Down: Jarryd Hayne
The ex-Australian rugby league player has been fun to watch. We have to give him that much.
The 49ers also may be closer to handing Hayne a roster spot, too, based off his performances over the preseason's first two weeks. Following up on his surprising showing against Houston, Hayne staked his claim to a spot in San Francisco with three solid punt returns (27, 34 and 23 yards) and 54 yards rushing.
He has been downright electrifying with the football in his hands. Better yet, the Sydney native has shown no fear returning punts—a huge kick forced him to turn and make an over-the-shoulder grab on the run for his first attempt Sunday.
San Francisco could use another playmaker, both on offense and special teams. Though severely inexperienced, Hayne looks like one so far.
Fourth Down: Brandon Scherff
Back to that whole "take a deep breath" discussion we had up top ...
Scherff is a talented offensive lineman. He ranked No. 8 on our SI64 countdown of 2015 draft prospects and we gave Washington a healthy A-minus for taking him with the fifth pick. Eventually, he should figure this all out, whether it happens at guard or tackle.
But Scherff provided glaring evidence that he's not even close to getting there yet Thursday vs. Detroit, as he struggled to hold his ground up front for the second straight game. His most noticeable gaffe this week came when he allowed Lions defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker to bull-rush him back into Robert Griffin III, leading to a sack.
Griffin's woes, injury and otherwise, make it easy to notice any failings up front. Scherff can work through this, but Washington needs it to happen relatively soon.
"I'm glad we don't have to play him twice a year and he's not in our division," New England coach Bill Belichick said of Cooks, via The Times-Picayune. "He's a really good player."
The Saints' first-round selection a year ago is a prime breakout candidate after a 550-yard, three-touchdown showing during a rookie season beset by injury. Belichick got a close look at Cooks during the teams' joint practices last week and again on Saturday night—Cooks caught four passes for 117 yards, with a 45-yard touchdown reception.
McCourty has played safety for the Patriots since 2012, and the front office paid him as one of the top players at that position this off-season. Which makes McCourty's presence at cornerback all the more intriguing.
He was victimized on the aforementioned Cooks touchdown—McCourty covered Cooks off the line, then dropped off him downfield just as Cooks blew past safety Duron Harmon. There's probably room to forgive McCourty, though, given that this was his first game appearance at corner in three years.
And he doesn't seem to want to stay there: "I hope it's not permanent," he told CSNNE's Tom Curran, echoing comments from earlier this summer.
The Patriots may still be searching for answers in coverage after losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Sliding McCourty back to the position he played upon entering the league clearly has developed into a legit option, but is it worth it? McCourty has emerged as one of the better deep safeties in the league and was instrumental—while playing safety—in last season's Super Bowl run.
First Down: Shaquil Barrett and Ben Heeney
Get to know the names.
Barrett spent last season on the Broncos practice squad after signing as an undrafted free agent. If Denver cannot find room for him this season (and with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray holding three OLB spots already, it might happen), count on another team to pounce. The Colorado State product sealed this week's win over Houston with a strip-sack of Tom Savage—his second sack in two games.
Heeney will be doing far less sweating over his roster spot. A fifth-round pick this year, the aggressive Heeney already has 15 tackles this preseason. He also forced a fumble Saturday, teaming with fellow rookie Mario Edwards Jr. to pop the ball loose from Minnesota QB Taylor Heinecke.
Oakland currently has Heeney behind veteran Curtis Lofton on the depth chart at middle linebacker, but that may not stick. Lofton was awful for New Orleans last season and could find himself pressured by Heeney in the not-too-distant future.
Fourth Down: The Cardinals' right tackle situation
About a week ago, Bradley Sowell joined the first-team offense, apparently in preparation for Bobby Massie's impending three-game suspension. Neither is too spectacular an option protecting Carson Palmer—Massie allowed a team-worst seven sacks last season; Sowell didn't see a single offensive snap last year after surrendering an outlandish 40 hurries as a 2013 starter.
Arizona would prefer rookie D.J. Humphries to wrestle the job away for himself. It's not going to happen by Week 1 if Arizona's Saturday night matchup with San Diego was any indication. Humphries again appeared overmatched this week and had Bruce Arians fuming after coughing up a third-down sack.
The Cardinals are desperate to enhance their run game, plus absolutely must keep QB Carson Palmer upright. Unfortunately, the right-tackle spot is shaping up to remain a weakness.
First Down: Backup running backs
Even if Hayne is relegated to the outskirts of this conversation, enough young running backs excelled this weekend to take notice. Of note among them:
• Chicago's Jeremy Langford, who racked up 80 yards and a touchdown during the Bears' win at Indianapolis. The rookie out of Michigan State found more than half of those rushing yards on one 46-yard burst.
• Washington's Matt Jones, averaging 6.3 yards on his 13 preseason carries. Just as in the first week of exhibition games, Jones ran hard downhill Thursday vs. Detroit. Alfred Morris will be the lead dog for this run game, but Jones will have a role.
• Detroit's Zach Zenner, who hauled in a touchdown pass during Detroit's 21–17 loss to Jones and the Redskins. The touchdown was one of five catches Zenner had on the night, for 59 yards. He also carried four times for another 22 yards. The Lions have myriad options in the backfield, so Zenner could be squeezed out by the numbers game. If so, he's still done enough to warrant a spot somewhere.
• Dion Lewis. Remember him? The former Eagle, Brown and Colt suddenly looks like he could be the next "Random Running Back Who Stars on a Bill Belichick-Led Patriots Team," thanks to his 48 total yards and touchdown this week. Lewis has been unable to stay healthy during his career, but he showed Saturday the shifty athleticism that turned him into a draft pick in the first place.
Fourth Down: Nick Foles
St. Louis's new quarterback has faced consistent pressure over his first two appearances, a recipe for disaster given what we know about what Foles can and cannot do. He has shown throughout his young NFL career to be rather easily flustered in the pocket and not mobile enough to escape it well.
Sunday night was ugly. Foles completed 3-of-7 passes for just 18 yards, mixing in a brutal interception, too. Foles is still learning a new scheme following his off-season trade from Philadelphia, so there naturally will be some hiccups. That said, the Rams are a mere three weeks from a Week 1 showdown vs. Seattle. If Foles and his line are still going through the motions at that point, they'll be 0–1.